The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part II


Continued from “The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part I“:

Illustration from Edward Eggleston, The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age (1906): A Methodist circuit rider on horseback

One purpose of these “memorials,” and certainly a primary purpose of the separate volumes of memorials which were reprinted, was to present to people everywhere, Christian and non-Christian, the “moral example” of these dedicated ministers of Christ.  This purpose perhaps ran deeper as the Victorian age wore on.

For example, at the front of the Black River and Northern New York Conference Memorial, Second Series, edited by Rev. P. Douglass Gorrie, and published in 1881, the editor presents the following wish:

The Author begs leave to present his feeble, yet grateful Tribute of Respect to the Memories of Departed Worth and Moral Heroism.

His subjects he goes on to describe as “the noble dead.”  In the preface of the same book, the only regret expressed in its publication is “that each and all had no more worthy pen to portray the virtues that adorned their Christian character.” (v-vi)

In a religious group like the Methodists, who paid such close attention to personal morality, and valued most highly among its leaders those who were “good judges of character,” and “morally persuasive,” it is natural that this moral persuasion should be a primary aim of writing down the memorials of those leaders’ lives.  So these accounts become a didactic display of virtue, held up as example to the reader.

The estimates made of the characters of the departed ministers were no doubt embellished, as memorials are.  But they are educational to us as historians, because they epitomize the values that were most highly esteemed by the writer and readers of these obituaries.  In fact, they may be one of the best and most compact sources we have for this aspect of Methodism—a sort of “catalog of Methodist virtues.”

long, hard work—heedless of circumstances or return

The theme of exceptionally hard and dedicated work was also common, perhaps epitomized in the words used in 1791 of one Wyatt Andrews:  “As long as he could ride, he travelled; and while he had breath, he praised God.”  As a subclass of this observation, the standard disclaimer was always made, as it was of the Rev. Joshua Boucher of the Missouri Conference in 1845, that “when he sustained a supernumerary [or in other cases cases superannuated] relation, there was no abatement in his ministerial labors.”

This theme of the punishing working life is often played up in an almost macho way by noting the painful or difficult circumstances through which the departed had nonetheless soldiered on—there is a respect bordering on awe expressed here which reminds me of the sportscaster speaking of the quarterback who is playin on through his pain.  For example, in the late 18th c. minutes we find the following:  James White, who was “afflicted yet active and laborious,” and “patient in suffering”; John Cooper who worked on despite “affliction,…dejection, sorrow and sufferings,” and was “often in want, but too modest to complain”; Cornelius Cook, who was “a faithful labourer and patient sufferer”; and John Wynn, “a son of affliction willing to labour to the last.”  The 1794 martyr Henry Birchett is the perfect didactic type here, as one who “freely left safety, ease, and prosperity, to seek after and suffer faithfully for souls,” and who “wanted no appeal from labour, danger or suffering.”

As the 19th century wore on, the sufferings of traveling ministers were no doubt somewhat diminished, not to mention those of settled pastors and church administrators.  This did not stop the eulogists from bringing out the old formulas:  In 1845 it was noted of departed Missouri Conference member and College President Rev. J. H. Fielding, that he had involved himself in “careful, assiduous, and diligent study, with a pertinacity which in all probability induced the disease which terminated his useful life.”  Thus we see that even an academic may be crowned with the laurel of having “worked himself to death.”

Even into the 20th century, when a particularly brave sufferer was found, this lesson of sheer grit in the face of adversity was again trotted out.  Of John W. Christian, who “was severely afflicted with asthma from childhood,” it was remembered that “if ‘greatness of character is capacity for pain,’ then he was great, and all the more so in that he kept his sufferings in his own bosom.”  Due to his childhood illness, “it would not have been surprising if he had been gloomy and morose.  But not so.  He had a cheerful face and a happy heart, and never burdened his friends with the sad tale of his sufferings.” (Memorial Sketches… [1870-1912], 90-91)

Whether one suffered from one’s circumstances or not, special approval was given to Methodists who took on themselves punishing workloads in the name of their Lord.  Of Rev. Anson West, D.D., the eulogist writes:

For fifty years Dr. West labored for the Master, with never once a vacation.  Just one week before his death, out of the goodness of their hearts [and perhaps extreme guilt for having worked their minister into the ground!], his people offered him the time and money to take a much-needed rest, which he at first declined; but there was so much of loving solicitude in their insistence that he finally consented.…But on the very day he was to have started the Lord called him up higher to spend his first vacation with the patriarchs and prophets.… (Memorial Sketches… [1870-1912], 26-7)

Particularly lauded was the trait of working hard regardless of, or in the absence of, material return.  James A. Neely, although “a field hand on the Conference all his life, never having been on a district, station, or even a good paying circuit,” was considered exemplary in that

he perhaps did more hard work as a pastor, more preaching and better preaching on a smaller salary than any man who ever labored in the bounds of our Conference.  He served many of the missions and poor circuits of that region in their formative state and during the Civil War almost entirely without pecuniary compensation, supporting his family and educating his children by his manual labor, often even carrying with him from his own home the food for his faithful horse.  They scarcely furnished him food while away from home, yet he visited from house to house instructing the lambs of the fold.… (Memorial Sketches… [1870-1912], 37-8)

Continued in “The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part III.”

The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part I

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